Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Last Intellectuals

The title of this book should be "The Last Radicals". Author Russell Jacoby has confused his words, apparently believing that an intellectual is by definition a revolutionary. The myopic vision of this guy was too much for me--and I'm on the Left. Consider that not one but two chapters were devoted to "The New Left on Campus" and not a peep about conservative academics except to lampoon them as adherents to The Man. Jacoby's legitimate concern--that our public intellectuals have lost their way--loses its power in the inconsistency of his argument.

A major premise to Jacoby's argument is that the loss of Bohemia through urban planning has interrupted a long history of citizen-intellectuals. The loss of cheap and hip neighborhoods forced these men and women to get a "real job" and sacrifice their ideals for practical needs. I don't buy it. A casual glance at intellectual history shows that major thinkers have often worked for or within the power structure of that culture. Churches, kings, universities, and governments have historically been the standard source of support for intellectuals. Further, there are still lots of cheap places to live in the US--ghettos, farms,etc. These might not be as hip as a Greenwich Village loft, but I doubt Spinoza would have minded.

More assumptions that must be shared to follow Jacoby are that universities are dominated by conservatives and that intellectuals are not publishing for the public. Does anybody, I mean anybody, feel like their professors were conservative? No. By a large margin, college campuses today are liberal. The media is conservative? Okay, sure. But not the universities. As for a lack of published work intended for the people, I don't see it. Or, to put it another way, I do. Lots of it. I am always impressed by the range and quality of work I see in bookstores. As an ordinary guy, I have more access to today's recent scholarship than the elite classes of the past.

So, those are my gripes. Like I said earlier, the loss of the public intellectual is a legitimate concern. While I share the "conservative" value that intellectuals do not have a responsibility to society, I respect the ones that take that burden upon themselves. If these men and women are marginalized, it is to our collective detriment. If this idea is intriguing to you, there several books on the subject. Check them out before you check this one out.

1 comment:

TBlaze said...

I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately and would like to know more about the "other books" you recommend. Please direct.

I agree that we have access to endless amount of information, choice and reading material. Your average citizen can pursue all intellectual curiosities with a few clicks of the mouse. But is that enough? Do you have a group of people who are available and willing to engage in discussions on this material?

The dilemma is that this intellectual material has become distributed in new ways. This for several different reasons and as a result "the intellectual" has become more diffused throughout society. This makes him/her much harder to locate. I have identified a few major reasons.

1. Mass media (TV, major newspapers, radio) is in the complete control of the corporations. Intellectualism and raw capitalism have never gone hand in hand. However, there was a time that true thinkers had access to these channels. It is my belief that over the years a constant numbing of mass media users by the corporate messages, in one form or another, has made them less demanding in intellectual content. This is not to say that the mass is stupider. Many have just been able to turn towards other channels. This leads to my next point.

2. Fragmentation. The thinkers now have gone to their little niches and are hard to find for the masses and easy to find for those niche customers in search of what they have to say. The internet is one source. The universities another. However, universities are in more of a silo than ever with their 2.1 million different academic journals. (avg academic publication is read by 2.2 people - 1 of which is the author).

3. Geography. What you mentioned in your review is true. The intellectuals are not in close contact anymore. Therefore, my thinking is that they are not able (forced) to defend their ideas anymore verbally. Conversation in a café in Paris at 3:00pm on a Tuesday is a bit hard when rent prices make it difficult for someone working 50 hour weeks to afford living there. So, I question if an intellectual living on the farm or in the ghetto is going to have the daily stimulation needed to rattle their cage and force them to strengthen their arguments.